The Human Element of Pen Testing and the Role Tools Can Play

Science fiction novels, TV shows, and movies often demonstrate the possibility of, and perhaps the danger of, computers and machines taking over the day to day jobs that humans once completed. While this has come to fruition in some instances, like with many factory jobs now being completed by highly specialized robots, more often than not, these inventions and innovations serve as tools to enhance human skills, not replace them. This is the case in the cybersecurity world, especially when it comes to penetration tests. Read on to find out about misconceptions about penetration tests, why they will always require the human element, and how tools can be an invaluable resource for pen testers.

Vulnerability Scan or Penetration Test?

Many use vulnerability scans or vulnerability assessments as terms that are synonymous with penetration tests. However, there are clear differences between the two. Vulnerability scans look for and report on if known vulnerabilities are present within an IT environment. These scans are great to run on a regular basis in order to make sure your infrastructure is up to snuff on basic security measures.  However, since vulnerability assessments only alert you to the existence of vulnerabilities in your systems, but do not take any further action, they often do not require anything more than a user to press “run.”

Penetration tests, on the other hand, are far more complex. Vulnerability scans identify potential risks, while penetration testers investigate that potential. While something may look like a risk at first glance, until you put it through its paces, you don’t know what kind of risk it is.

Pen testers evaluate an environment’s security by exploiting weaknesses, breaching systems using a variety of methods and tools in order to simulate what would happen if an organization was hit with a real-world attack. Penetration tests are more expansive and provide a roadmap for organizations to know exactly what needs to be remediated. Since these tests are unique to every environment and may require a combination of skills in order to successfully infiltrate an environment, they simply cannot be done without any human interaction. 

Automation Does Not Mean Automatic

As pen testing tools have become more widely available, there has been a growing misconception that pen testing will also be as simple as running some software and walking away. While pen testing tools do provide some automation, this does not mean the entire pen testing process is automatic. At the very least, humans must be involved to choose which automations should be run and tailor them to an organization.

For example, Core Impact features Rapid Penetration Tests (RPTs) which allow beginning pen testers to build and run step by step automations using user friendly wizards. These RPTs focus on completing high level tasks in specific areas. These automations are designed to make the pen testing process more efficient, but don’t replace the sophisticated detail and analysis that goes into an effective pen test. For instance, the act of deploying phishing emails and collecting data on who opened them for a social engineering campaign can be automated. Pen testers must still research phishes that are out in the wild, create the content of the emails, and analyze the collected data for deeper meaning and wider trends.

Human Adversaries Require Human Defenders

As described above, penetration tests are intended to imitate real world attack scenarios. Real world attacks are made by humans with set motivations. Computers don’t attack other systems of their own volition. In order to authentically replicate these attacks, human pen testers are needed to think like and act like attackers.

As security defenses become more sophisticated, threat actors have had to become more creative in order to achieve their end goals. In order to imitate these attackers, pen testers have to be equally creative. Part of what makes attackers and pen testers successful is by concentrating on a common blind spot of many organizations—lack of communication. Whether it’s a failure for departments to check in with one another on aligning practices, or systems not configured to know what the other parts of the IT environment are doing, or even failing to have centralized security, these issues leave an organization vulnerable to breach by a clever attacker. For instance, pen testers look for seemingly unrelated security weaknesses throughout their infrastructure and build on them to create composite attacks. On their own, these singular weaknesses may not cause any alarm. But when linked together, a pen tester can easily exploit a network’s defenses using only their skills of analytical observation.

That said, attackers also use tools in order to make their breach attempts more successful. The same is true for pen testers. These penetration testing tools are intended for human augmentation, not replacement—they allow pen testers to focus on thinking outside the box by taking over tasks that take time, but not brain power. When it comes to pen testing, it’s never a choice between penetration testing tools vs. penetration testers. Instead, it’s a choice of what penetration tools will help a penetration tester most.

A Winning Combination: Pen Testers and Core Impact

Core Impact empowers pen testers of all skill levels to replicate multi-staged attacks using commercially developed exploits in an easy to use environment. It helps pen testers that don’t have years of experience get up to speed by showing them all the ways to dynamically pen test with an intuitive interface, while also enabling senior pen testers to dive deeper and stay efficient. Take advantage of all of the red and purple teaming capabilities, utilize a vast threat library, and ensure that you leave no trace with programmable self-destruct capabilities for agents at different levels. Galvanize your security teams with the industry leading solution that will enable them to intelligently manage security weaknesses and safeguard your organization.

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